Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Writers on Writing: Sherman Alexie's Fence (Paragraph) and Constance Hale's Boat (Sentence)

boat fence by Stavros Kammas

Sherman Alexie's description of a paragraph is unforgettable, at least for some with a little hint. Here's what he has to say: "I still remember the exact moment when I first understood, with a sudden clarity, the purpose of a paragraph. I didn't have the vocabulary to say 'paragraph,' but I realized that a paragraph was a fence that held words. The words inside a paragraph worked together for a common purpose.  They had some specific reason for being inside the same fence. This knowledge delighted me. I began to think of everything in terms of paragraphs." He then describes, in his essay "The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me," the pictures that he had once imagined.  His reservation was a paragraph within the United States.  His family lived in a house that was, yes, a paragraph. Each member of his family, all seven members, were paragraphs within their house, yet "each family member," he believes, "existed as a separate paragraph but still had genetics and common experiences to link us."  

This sounds like an essay in the making for that fence-building Alexie. Or any other enclosure, barricade or coop that he or any writer would like to assemble.

But before we get that essay built, all chained up and cinder-blocked, we must say goodbye to the paragraph. It is time to say hello to the sentence and give a big warm embrace to Constance Hale. She wants to take us on the water. Oh, dear.

Hale envisions "a sentence as a boat. Each sentence, after all, has a distinct shape, and it comes with something that makes it move forward or stay still — whether a sail, a motor or a pair of oars. There are as many kinds of sentences as there are seaworthy vessels: canoes and sloops, barges and battleships, Mississippi riverboats and dinghies all-too-prone to leaks. And then there are the impostors, flotsam and jetsam — a log heading downstream, say, or a coconut bobbing in the waves without a particular destination."

She can't stop there. She gets to the nitty gritty of subjects and predicates in her essay, "The Sentence as a Miniature Narrative."  She likes her boat, and she is not about to step off it, just yet. Here she goes: 

"The outline of our boat, the meaning of our every utterance, is given form by nouns and verbs. Nouns give us sentence subjects — our boat hulls. Verbs give us predicates — the forward momentum, the twists and turns, the abrupt stops.

"For a sentence to be a sentence we need a What (the subject) and a So What (the predicate). The subject is the person, place, thing or idea we want to express something about; the predicate expresses the action, condition or effect of that subject. Think of the predicate as a predicament — the situation the subject is in.

"I like to think of the whole sentence as a mini-narrative. It features a protagonist (the subject) and some sort of drama (the predicate): The searchlight sweeps. Harvey keeps on keeping on. The drama makes us pay attention."

Now where does that boat go?  Somewhere inside a fence. Undoubtedly, it is somewhere inside a fence--a marina?--if you had Mr. Alexie and Ms. Hale sitting down together for the blue plate special to climb that literary Mount Everest café of conversation. Where would you find such a place? In that land known as the mixed metaphor. Here are more.

Fence Boat by Tea Kolo

1A, 1B: Sherman Alexie (b. Oct. 7, 1966)

Sherman Alexie.  Photograph by Mike Urban.

Who is Sherman Alexie? In addition to posing for photographers, he has written novels, essays, and short stories. Go here to read some of his poetry and watch a video (about 6 mins.) with him. Did I say he writes short stories, too. How short?  Six words short. Take a look.  If the link doesn't work, you might need to register at Narrative Magazine.  If you want to learn more about Alexie, go to The New York Times Sherman Alexie page. He did a  "By the Book" Q&A  with the New York Sunday Book Review, November, 7, 2013.  Check out some of these interviews with Alexie: Time, Iowa Review, and The Atlantic.

Did I mention that he has his own website? He does. What about a Twitter account? Yes, again.

Twitter makes you feel young.
 Here's Alexie as martial artist.

Go to this NPR site and see what Alexie has to say about some athletic events and pop cultural moments. Read this interview from The New Yorker with Alexie as he considers his Lone Ranger turning 20. Also, go to the PBS Newshour page on Alexie, where you'll find videos of him being interviewed and reading his poetry. You can also watch this video below; it is an interview (about 40 mins.) he did with Bill Moyers.

Alexie's writing has been honored, but it has also stirred trouble. Check this out: "Frank Sex Talk Gets Sherman Alexie's Book Yanked From Reading List," a story that ran in August 2013. Here's the first paragraph: "It’s not the first time Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has been scrutinized for its mature themes. This time it’s New York parents saying their sixth graders aren’t ready for the content in the book and have asked that it no longer be required summer reading." Read more at this page. Alexie also takes his sly humor right to Stephen Colbert, as you can see in the video below.

Alexie loves the game.  Find "Where's Sherman?"
 Your prize: "Defending Walt Whitman"

Defending Walt Whitman
by Sherman Alexie

Basketball is like this for young Indian boys, all arms and legs
and serious stomach muscles. Every body is brown!
These are the twentieth-century warriors who will never kill,
although a few sat quietly in the deserts of Kuwait,
waiting for orders to do something, to do something.

God, there is nothing as beautiful as a jumpshot
on a reservation summer basketball court
where the ball is moist with sweat,
and makes a sound when it swishes through the net
that causes Walt Whitman to weep because it is so perfect.

There are veterans of foreign wars here
although their bodies are still dominated
by collarbones and knees, although their bodies still respond
in the ways that bodies are supposed to respond when we are young.
Every body is brown! Look there, that boy can run
up and down this court forever. He can leap for a rebound
with his back arched like a salmon, all meat and bone
synchronized, magnetic, as if the court were a river,
as if the rim were a dam, as if the air were a ladder
leading the Indian boy toward home.

Some of the Indian boys still wear their military hair cuts
while a few have let their hair grow back.
It will never be the same as it was before!
One Indian boy has never cut his hair, not once, and he braids it
into wild patterns that do not measure anything.
He is just a boy with too much time on his hands.
Look at him. He wants to play this game in bare feet.
God, the sun is so bright! There is no place like this.
Walt Whitman stretches his calf muscles
on the sidelines. He has the next game.
His huge beard is ridiculous on the reservation.
Some body throws a crazy pass and Walt Whitman catches it
with quick hands. He brings the ball close to his nose
and breathes in all of its smells: leather, brown skin, sweat,
black hair, burning oil, twisted ankle, long drink of warm water,
gunpowder, pine tree. Walt Whitman squeezes the ball tightly.
He wants to run. He hardly has the patience to wait for his turn.
"What's the score?" he asks. He asks, "What's the score?"

Basketball is like this for Walt Whitman. He watches these Indian boys
as if they were the last bodies on earth. Every body is brown!
Walt Whitman shakes because he believes in God.
Walt Whitman dreams of the Indian boy who will defend him,
trapping him in the corner, all flailing arms and legs
and legendary stomach muscles. Walt Whitman shakes
because he believes in God. Walt Whitman dreams
of the first jumpshot he will take, the ball arcing clumsily
from his fingers, striking the rim so hard that it sparks.
Walt Whitman shakes because he believes in God.
Walt Whitman closes his eyes. He is a small man and his beard
is ludicrous on the reservation, absolutely insane.
His beard makes the Indian boys righteously laugh. His beard
frightens the smallest Indian boys. His beard tickles the skin
of the Indian boys who dribble past him. His beard, his beard!

God, there is beauty in every body. Walt Whitman stands
at center court while the Indian boys run from basket to basket.
Walt Whitman cannot tell the difference between
offense and defense. He does not care if he touches the ball.
Half of the Indian boys wear t-shirts damp with sweat
and the other half are bareback, skin slick and shiny.
There is no place like this. Walt Whitman smiles.
Walt Whitman shakes. This game belongs to him.

Alexie talks about basketball in these two great videos, below. Watch whether you are a fan of the game or not. 

Let's say you're not a basketball fan, if that's possible.  And you're trying to figure out what's this thing called the "pick and roll" that Alexie mentions. You can't do much better than to get your lesson from the great Larry Bird and his fellow Celtics. Or if you have a problem with the Celtics (if that's possible) and the old school shorts, watch this video about "the best play in basketball," says Coach P.J. Carlesimo.

What else has Alexie been up to? He gave an interview to The Atlantic, that ran Oct. 16, 2013. It appears under the inviting title, "The Poem That Made Sherman Alexie Want to 'Drop Everything and Be a Poet.'"  You might wish to do the same. Read the poem, that is. The poem by Adrian C. Louis has a line, "reservation of his mind," that gave Alexie the confidence to embark on a life far from where he grew up, geographically and artistically. So, read the interview, too. And the poem by Louis, below. I insist.

Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile

July 4th and all is Hell.
Outside my shuttered breath the streets bubble
with flame-loined kids in designer jeans
looking for people to rape or razor.
A madman covered with running sores
is on the street corner singing:
O beautiful for spacious skies…
This landscape is far too convenient
to be either real or metaphor.
In an alley behind a 7-11
a Black pimp dressed in Harris tweed
preaches fidelity to two pimply whores
whose skin is white though they aren’t quite.
And crosstown in the sane precincts
of Brown University where I added rage
to Cliff Notes and got two degrees
bearded scientists are stringing words
outside the language inside the guts of atoms
and I don’t know why I’ve come back to visit.

O Uncle Adrian! I’m in the reservation of my mind.
Chicken bones in a cardboard casket
meditate upon the linoleum floor.
Outside my flophouse door stewed
and sinister winos snore in a tragic chorus.

The snowstorm t.v. in the lobby’s their mother.
Outside my window on the jumper’s ledge
ice wraiths shiver and coat my last cans of Bud
though this is summer I don’t know why or where
the souls of Indian sinners fly.
Uncle Adrian, you died last week—cirrhosis.
I still have the photo of you in your Lovelock
letterman’s jacket—two white girls on your arms—
first team All-State halfback in ’45, ’46.

But nothing is static. I am in the reservation of
my mind. Embarrassed moths unravel my shorts
thread by thread asserting insectival lust.
I’m a naked locoweed in a city scene.
What are my options? Why am I back in this city?
When I sing of the American night my lungs billow
Camels astride hacking appeals for cessation.
My mother’s zippo inscribed: “Stewart Indian School—1941”
explodes in my hand in elegy to Dresden Antietam
and Wounded Knee and finally I have come to see
this mad fag nation is dying.
Our ancestors’ murderer is finally dying and I guess
I should be happy and dance with the spirit or project
my regret to my long-lost high school honey
but history has carried me to a place
where she has a daughter older than we were
when we first shared flesh.

She is the one who could not marry me
because of the dark-skin ways in my blood.
Love like that needs no elegy but because
of the baked-prick possibility of the flame lakes of Hell
I will give one last supper and sacrament
to the dying beast of need disguised as love
on deathrow inside my ribcage.
I have not forgotten the years of midnight hunger
when I could see how the past had guided me
and I cried and held the pillow, muddled
in the melodrama of the quite immature
but anyway, Uncle Adrian…
Here I am in the reservation of my mind
and silence settles forever
the vacancy of this cheap city room.
In the wine darkness my cigarette coal
tints my face with Geronimo’s rage
and I’m in the dry hills with a Winchester
waiting to shoot the lean, learned fools
who taught me to live-think in English.

Uncle Adrian…
to make a long night story short,
you promised to give me your Oldsmobile in 1962.
How come you didn’t?
I could have had some really good times in high school.


Image from The New York Times, September 5, 2009

During the first weeks of school I often stress the importance of reading the newspaper daily.  James MacGregor Burns, who has been a college teacher for over 50 years and the author of many books on U.S. government and history, encourages students to "[t]ry to read a good newspaper every day."  Most of you do all the things he suggests, but it is good to see his ideas in print. In addition to reading MacGregor's article, you might want to take a look at some of these other articles in The New York Times Education Life section.  You'll find articles on "The Year of the MOOC,"   and . . . you name it. Please post some of your reactions to what Burns and the other writers have to say.  What do you think is going on at colleges today?

Follow these links to three newspapers that you should become familiar with.  Why not make one of these your home page?

Los Angeles Times

The New York Times

The Washington Post

and this one, too:

BBC news

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Writers on Writing: Zoe Heller (Can Writing Be Taught?)

Can Writing Be Taught?

The New York Times, August 19, 2014

No one at my daughter’s school has ever told her that the use of the word “incredibly” is subject to the law of diminishing returns.


Zoë Heller CreditIllustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

The other night I took a look at my daughter’s English essay and suggested that she try excising the words “extremely,” “totally” and “incredibly” wherever they appeared in her prose. She did this and was surprised to discover that not only were the intensifiers superfluous, but that her sentences were stronger without them.
The question of whether writing can be taught is often framed as a “great” or “perennial” debate, when in fact it is neither. No one seriously disputes that good writing has certain demonstrable rules, principles and techniques. (All writers, insofar as they are readers, have been “taught” by the example of other writers.) What passes for controversy on this issue turns out, in most cases, to be some smaller and more specific disagreement — usually having to do with the efficacy of creative writing courses and whether they foster false hope in students without literary promise.
This is a reasonable subject for discussion; it is certainly useful to point out that an M.F.A. is not a passport to becoming a great novelist, or even a published one. (The former depends on something numinous called talent; the latter has to do with the exigencies of the marketplace.) But the transformative capacity of teaching in any discipline has its limits: A ballet school undertakes to teach ballet, not to invest its students with the genius of Darcey Bussell or to give them all jobs in the corps. And to focus on what one rarefied branch of postgraduate tuition cannot do for aspiring artists is to ignore all the things that writing instruction can do for everyone else.
Modern educators often talk of wanting to encourage “critical thinking” in students. A crucial part of that mission is — or should be — teaching young people how to organize and present their ideas in lucid prose. Most people will not end up writing essays or novels for a living, but at some point they will probably want to write a job application, send a condolence letter (O.K., perhaps just a condolence text), or compose an email to a colleague explaining why something went wrong at work. Knowing how to write — understanding the basics of what used to be called “rhetoric” — still matters, even in the Internet age. So it’s a sad thing that in a great many American public high schools, writing instruction amounts to little more than inculcating the dreary requirements of the SAT essay.

No one at my daughter’s school has ever mentioned to her that the use of the word “incredibly” is subject to the law of diminishing returns. No one has ever talked to her intelligently about structure or style. Instead, she has been given a single, graceless formula for writing a book report and told that any departure from it will result in the automatic subtraction of marks: “In the first sentence, state your general theme; in the second sentence, state your thesis; in the third sentence, provide a road map of how you will advance your thesis throughout the rest of the essay and make sure that all subsequent paragraphs correspond accordingly.”
Composing an essay that conforms to this sort of template is the prose equivalent of wearing a too small, too stiff bridesmaid’s dress: It’s a joyless exercise, and the results are never pretty. Writing can be taught, but it deserves to be taught better than this.
Zoë Heller is the author of three novels: “Everything You Know”; “Notes on a Scandal,” which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and adapted for film; and “The Believers.” She has written feature articles and criticism for a wide range of publications, including The New Yorker, The New Republic and The New York Review of Books.

Turn to grammar.yourdictionary.com for more information about adverbs.

Dorothea Lange on PBS, Friday, Aug. 29, 9:00PM

Lange at work during the Great Depression.
Photograph by her husband, economist Paul S. Taylor, 1934

The photograph of the dog stand, above, was taken by Dorothea Lange in October 1939 while she was under contract with the Farm Security Administration, a federal agency that hired photographers to document American rural life during the Great Depression. This stand was on U.S. highway 99 in Lane County, Williamette Valley, Oregon. Lange is considered one of the great American photographers, best known for her documentary photographs of rural Americans in the 1930s. A good place to start to learn more about Lange is this video, "Dorothea Lange's Documentary Photographs," from the Getty Museum. 

Her best known photograph, shown below, is "Migrant Mother," whose subject is Florence Thompson, a 32-year-old widow and farm worker during the Great Depression. It was taken in Nipomo, California in 1936. Four videos at YouTube--Lange's "Migrant Mother" (2:11)CSPAN's Story of "Migrant Mother" (4:09)Lange: An American Odyssey (37:46), and Lange: "Migrant Mother" (23:07)--present reports on Lange and the photograph, an important visual document of 20th Century America. You can find more photographs by Lange at this Library of Congress website. Check this site, too, for more photographs by Lange.

PBS will broadcast Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning on Friday, August 29th, 2014, at 9 PM.

Her life is reported by bio. Read some of Dorothea Lange's words on photography at Dodho, a magazine of photography. 

Brainpickings present the story of how Lange's "Migrant Mother" came to be. Read "The Story Behind the Iconic 'Migrant Mother' Photograph and How Dorothea Lange Almost Didn’t Take It" The U.S. Library of Congress Farm Security Administration archive is home to many photos that Lange took when visiting with Florence Thomspon, the "Migrant Mother." You may be interested too in reading An excerpt from No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy by Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites. The photograph also inspired Marissa Silver to write her novel, Mary Coin. NPR gave it a good review, as did the Los Angeles Times. 
The photograph, "Migrant Mother," is of Florence Thompson, 32, and is part of the
Library of Congress collection. Lange took the photograph of Thompson
and three of her seven children in 1936, in a pea picking field in Nipomo, California.

1B: The Appointment in Samarra

"The Appointment in Samarra" 
(as retold by W. Somerset Maugham [1933])
The speaker is Death

There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me.  She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate.  I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.  The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went.  Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?  That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise.  I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

Friday, August 22, 2014

English 1A & 1B: TEXTBOOKS Fall 2014

You can buy your textbooks for all of my classes by following this link to the PCC Bookstore online service.  You should have your course registration sheet with you as you place your order. First step, click on Fall 2014, and then look for EF-English to begin your search.  You'll select the course name and number, and then the section number for the class in which you are enrolled.  

Kindle or other electronic editions are not acceptable for my classes. You must buy the paperback or hardcover copies.

The prices below should be correct, but book prices are always subject to change.

ENGLISH 1A (for Fall 2014)
50 ESSAYS (4th edition)
New: $33.35
Used: $25.00
New: $14.00
Used: $10.50
New: $15.95
Used: $12.00
New: $57.35
Used: $43.00
Other 1A materials
Los Angeles Times @ http://www.latimes.com>
and The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com
Go to each newspaper site and read some of each paper online every day;
it will help you with your assignments.
A dictionary and 3 large blue books and a stapler.

ENGLISH 1B (for Fall 2014)
NEW: $8.00
USED: $6.00

New: $46.70
Used: $35.00
New: $16.00
Used: $12.00

Other 1B materials
Los Angeles Times @ http://www.latimes.com>
and The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com
Go to each newspaper site and read some of each paper online every day;
it will help you with your assignments.
A dictionary and 3 large blue books and a stapler.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

ENGLISH 60 Masterpieces of Drama -- SPACE AVAILABLE!

Masterpieces of Drama
English 60
Fall 2014
4:30—7:30 Tuesdays
Three Units
Transfers to UC and CSU
Professor Roger Marheine

Think the ancients are old hat?  Care to hear what happened on the way to the Peloponnesian War?   Are you ready for a brave new world?  Could it be that you need a little more drama in your life?  Sign up for English 60, Masterpieces of Drama. 
Professor Roger Marheine has taught drama as literature for over thirty years.  He recently co-led PCC’s  London Theatre trip (May 2014).   “Theatre is a living art form that transforms the written word into performed experience.”


Pasadena City College
Study Abroad Program

Information Meetings in Room C217:    9/18, 10/16, and 11/13 noon and 6pm

Earn 12-20 transferable units in English and Natural/Physical Science:

ENVS1: Introduction to Environmental Science (4 units)
Biology 14: Field Biology (4 units)
Physical Science 2: Scientific Method as Critical Thinking (3 units) 
ENG 9: Creative Non-Fiction (3 units)
ENG 49A: Film as Dramatic Literature (3 units)
ENG 57: Modern Drama (3 units)    

Program Includes:
Round trip airfare and transfers
Housing and meals in British homestays 
Activities include plays, museums, and other cultural events in London and Oxford
Full day excursions to London, Stonehenge, Bath, The Eden Project and more
Guest lecturers in Oxford
Spring Break: free time to travel (March 13-22, 2015)

Cost: $8,605 (excluding airline taxes, fees, fuel surcharges and PCC tuition fees)

Professor Krista Walter, English kristawalter@hotmail.com
Professor Erika Catanese, Natural Sciences   elcatanese@pasadena.edu

Financial Aid may be available for those who qualify. For more information visit http://www.pasadena.edu/studentservices/financialaid/studyabroad.cfm or contact the Financial Aid Office in Room L114: (626-585-7401).

Brochures and applications available online at www.pasadena.edu/travel 
or at the Study Abroad Office/Instructional Support: Room C229 (626-585-7483).

Saturday, August 16, 2014

English 7 and Inscape Magazine

is the literary magazine for PCC students

Want to help? Edit and Publish the magazine?

Enroll in English 7 [Inscape] for Fall 2014. 

Is experience needed?

Not really.  It helps if you like to read short stories, poetry, and creative nonfiction by PCC students.  And it helps if you are a nice person and work well with others.

Do you write stories, poems or creative nonfiction (sometimes called literary nonfiction)?

Submit your writing--fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction--for possible publication in Inscape.  Prizes, too, for best submissions. Stop by the English Dept. office (C245) for more information re: submission guidelines.  Or see the submission guidelines, below.

Other Questions?

Prof. Christopher McCabe
English Dept.

Inscape Submission Guidelines

the PCC Student Literary Magazine & Contest

Now taking poetry, fiction, and nonfiction submissions to Inscape 2015Inscape editors—no experience necessary—enroll in English 7 for Fall 2014. Contest prizes awarded for best short fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Winners will be announced in April 2015.


Your Name:     _____________________________________________________

Student I.D. number:  ________________________________________________

Phone: ________________________   email: ______________________________  

home address: _____________________________________________________

biographical note (i.e., major at PCC, goals, interests, hobbies, etc.): 

Guidelines: Each work must be submitted in hard copy and by email. Include all of the information requested on hard copy and email submissionsSubmit only one work per email; put Inscape 2015, your full name, submission title and genre (i.e., poetry, short story, or nonfiction) in the subject line; and paste into the message field; do not attach it to the email. Submit your hard copies to Prof. McCabe’s mailbox in the English Dept. office, C245, and electronically to his email address: cjmccabe@pasadena.edu.

You may submit up to two poems (45 lines or less each), two short stories (2500 words or less), and two nonfiction pieces (2500 words or less). Submit your writing with titles, in Times New Roman 12 point font, one-inch  margins, pages numbered and with your name. Double-space prose. Single-space poems except at new stanzas.

Poetry - (45 lines or less): 1. _________________________   2._____________________________

Short Story - (2500 words or less):   1. _________________   2. ____________________________

Nonfiction  - (2500 words or less): 1. ___________________   2.  ___________________________

Questions?     Contact     Prof. Christopher McCabe        323-496-4472       cjmccabe@pasadena.edu